Game Designers in Detail: Zach Gage

Game Designers In Detail is a three-question interview series between a current NYU Game Center MFA student and a PRACTICE speaker.

In this interview, MFA Reynaldo Vargas and speaker Zach Gage discuss designing controls for iOS, designing for a more game-literate player base on iOS, and the relationship between making work that is accessible and work that makes players think critically.

Reynaldo Vargas: BitPilot is one of my favorite games for iOS. It is a elegant game with very intuitive control schemes. Did you have any problems designing the controls for BitPilot and looking back would you change anything about it?

Zach Gage: Actually the game came out of the controls. I was working on a game called Context for a grad school project where you take photos of things and those photos become the levels inside the game. I just posted up a video of that project here:

When I was working on Context, one of the first things I had to do was come up with a way to control the main character. This was so early in iOS development that there really weren’t any set in stone ways to do that. Even virtual d-pads (which are still horrible) were so bad back then that basically nobody used them. My only experience with touch controls was that prior to Context I’d made an tetris-style block-dropping iOS game called Unify that used swipe gestures to move pieces up, down, in. That had worked really well, so I wanted to figure out how to apply swiping to move a main character in 2d space. My starting idea was to make it feel like blowing on a leaf in a pond, where lots of little efforts came together to move something. In an afternoon I implemented the controls and found them to be much tighter than I’d expected, so I created a little game around them where you had to dodge circles that came at you. That was so much fun that I added a score-counter, and effectively that was bit pilot. Here’s a video of the controls mockup that I made that afternoon, so you can see the similarities (the music in that video was a sabrepulse track illegally harvested from a friend’s mix cd, eventually I would go on to work with sabrepulse for the rest music in the game):

It took me a few months after that to work out all the graphics, optimization, and the shield and pill mechanic.

I actually don’t really think I would change much with it. Ultimately my biggest regret about Bit Pilot is that I don’t think I did the tutorial very well, and compounding that, I don’t think people were really ready to play an experimental touch game at the time. Everyone was so uncomfortable with touch screens in general that the reach to be asked to do something weird with them was just too far (I can’t tell you how many requests I got asking for a virtual d-pad).

For years now I’ve been thinking about making a sequel. I think people are much more prepared to use touch screens in a weirder way now, and I have so many ideas that didn’t get to fit in the original game.

RV: I noticed a distinct trend in your recent work moving from digital games (Bit Pilot, Spelltower) to card games (Guts of Glory, Grit), is there any reason for that? Are there different methods you go through to create digital games versus card games?

ZG: I think across all of different kinds of work I do, whether its installation art, or conceptual art, or videogames, or boardgames, the most important thing to me is making people think critically, and the most important component of making people think critically is building accessible work. I think this desire for accessibility is one of the reasons I’ve been tending towards physical games lately — theres something beautiful about the inherent cultural familiarity of physical game components (like a deck of cards, or a six-sided-die), that cuts down the amount of learning any new players have to do when approaching your game. For example, abstract percentages often make novice gamers uncomfortable, yet almost everyone feels comfortable with rolling dice — even though the odds are often as difficult to figure. With dice though we have “gut-feelings” where we would have nothing with raw digital percentage-odds.

Another thing that interests me about designing physical games is how they force you to build tutorial into the game design. When you’re putting a tutorial together for a digital game you actually have a ton of leeway with regard to how much the player must understand up front. This is because in a digital game the player doesn’t have to simultaneously play and enforce the rules.
In physical games, because players need to do both, learning can be a challenge. Instead of just asking players to explore the system, you first need to teach them how to operate the system. This necessitates (in many cases) simpler, more elegant systems. In Guts of Glory I intentionally designed a system where although initial turns are important, as you make your way through the game, every action slowly becomes substantially more important. In this way, players can learn how to implement the system at the same time that they’re playing/exploring it. Even first time players cannot really screw the game up, because if they do, they did it at a time where things weren’t as important. Past mistakes can always be made up for with present actions. Compare that to a board-game like Game of Thrones (a game which i love), where often a turn or two of following the rules improperly by accident will force you to house-rule the entire gameplay session.

RV: As a game designer it can be tough to find a clear design that can be engaging for the player. What drives you to design your games the way you do (Do you look at mechanics, emotion, or something entirely different)?

ZG: The goal for me is always accessibility, because I want people to be thinking critically when they engage with my work. So when I’m working on something I’m always asking myself:

  • Is the system simple enough that players can fit it all inside their head at one time? (Can the player hold a full mental model of the game in their mind? Without this, players cannot make informed decisions)
  • Does the system support and encourage curious behavior? (Are there multiple paths to victory at all skill-levels)
  • Are the actions and strategies that the system encourages the player to try ones that will set them on the path to mastering the system? (Or is the system susceptible to superficial strategies that appear to work at first, but eventually undermine the player when the game gets harder)
  • Is the the type of game that fits within the context on the device that it is being played on? (How long are sessions? How complex is the game state? How pick-up-resumable is it?
  • Does the amount of mental work (combing through decision trees or remembering hidden information) that goes into the game pay off? (Is the fun worth it? Do people who work hard always do better than people who work smart?)
  • Are the majority of the decisions that the player makes interesting and/or hard ones that require critical decision-making? (or is the player having to make a lot of low-importance wrote decisions)
  • Is the system legible to passive onlookers?
  • Does the system successfully convey what I personally find interesting in it?

I have a strong belief that if something is interesting to you, it’s interesting to everyone — the challenge is providing everyone else with appropriate context to understand what is interesting about it.